Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Wisdom of Ann Stoler

In the epilogue of Ann Stoler's Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power (a book which is absolutely not on my recommended reading list for anyone except specialists in colonial studies...which I am decidedly not) there is an intriguing reflect on the function of classification in politics. Stoler is speaking directly about colonial systems of power, and specifically about the Dutch Indies, but her observations have a broader application, one that has been touched on here with reference to Vernard Eller and Roger Hines.

[T]axonomies demand more than specification and detail. As Jim Scott too notes, "seeing like a state" may encourage just the opposite--that its agents master not sociological fine print but broad simplified sociological generalizations. Taxonomic states may encourage state agents to pay less attention to detail than to sorting codes. Psychologists convincingly argue that taxonomies reduce cognitive expense. Colonial administrators seemed to treat them as technologies that reduced political expense as well. In the Indies, social categories that were "easy to think" pared down what colonial recruits and residents thought they needed to master. Sociological shorthands lessened how much of certain kinds of information one needed to operate and how much one needed to know.

In other words, the appropriation of difference for the purpose of classifying social groups is an exercise in political laziness. It "gloms," to steal Eller's language, large and diverse bodies into manageable subheadings so that the government can do just that, manage them. White, black, Hispanic. Gay, straight. 99%, job creators. Eller would say none of that categories correspond to any reality and, in fact, function to distort it. Stoler would seem to agree, as she recounts the way the concept of race was constructed in colonial contexts (where, interestingly, European could be so broad as to include the Japanese and Arabs).

While for Eller the problem is an ethical one, the inability to construct a classless and therefore just society as God desires, Stoler's account has a more detached air. She passes no judgment--being a historian and not, like Eller, a theologian--but only presents the grim, unnerving picture of the way the state has evolved to take the path of least resistance between reality as it is and reality as the state would construct it. More unnerving still for me was the realization that our democratic system distinguishes itself from the Dutch system of Stoler's work in that rather than a hegemonic few deciding the sociological categories and directing the state on those grounds, Americans participate in the grouping of themselves into arbitrary categories and allow themselves to be berated, pressured, and educated into conforming to those categories. Every time Americans vote, march, speak, protest, or perform any civic act in the framework of a sociological taxonomy and conforming to the expectations of that taxonomy they remove a conceptual roadblock to the power of the state to mold reality.

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